Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Feisty Federalist

Like pretty much everyone in the U.S., I'm frequently dismayed by the antics of the many pin-heads who act as agents of the public trust in our representative democracy.  If there's a bipartisan issue out there, this is probably it: a open-mouthed, collective horror at what's being done to us under the guise of what's being done for us.

But at the same time, it really fries my bacon when people throw the baby out with the admittedly dirty bath-water of American politics.  American republican democracy and the foundations of the American government are comprised of amazing ideas and ideals, and I often find myself wanting to admonish people to show a little respect.  The practice may be faulty and rather shabby, but the underlying principles are genuinely worth our time and consideration. 

I've taught The Federalist Papers in Early American Lit., and #10 is my favorite.  In the first place, I'm always amazed at the fact that this paper was actually that--a news-sheet designed to inform the general public about the impending ratification of the Constitution and advocate for its adoption.  It's funny that, as much as we hold up the Constitution as one of the hallmarks of American democracy and an obviously brilliant idea, it was by no means a done-deal: it took a lot of arguing and promotion to create the union that we now take for granted.  

When I think about the fact that this is what was "on," so to speak, in 1787, and I turn to see what I'm to be tuning into next week on "The Bachelorette," I want to cry... but I digress.

Written by James Madison, Federalist #10 addresses the problem of factions in a democracy: although the language is fancy, the issue is quite practical.  People like to quarrel, and if they can't find a good reason to argue, they'll make one up--we have an inherent "propensity" to "fall into mutual animosities" even over "the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions."  So what happens when you make people--as opposed to monarchs, say--the seat of governmental power?  All hell breaks loose: historically, popular democracies are prone to "instability, injustice, and confusion"-- they typically offer "spectacles of turbulence and contention," they are "incompatible with personal security or the rights of property," and they are consequently short-lived and frequently die a violent death.

The solution, Madison argues, is to either fight the causes of factions or to put a check on their potential effects.  There is one quick way to eliminate factions: limit personal freedoms.  "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire"--the more freedom we have, the more likely we are to unite with others who share our passions and collectively seek to impose our agenda on others.  Given the chance, we'll use our rights to trample on the rights of others--particularly over the issue of property.  Democracy gives us the chance to serve as both judge and jury, and in cases where our own interests are at stake, we are unlikely, if not unable, to weigh the issues without inherent bias.

In a republic organized along the lines of the U.S. Constitution, however, as Madison notes, "the great and aggregate interests [are] referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures."  This is precisely the conflict being played out in Arizona: a conflict between aggregate interests affecting the nation as a whole, and local and particular interests specific to the state of Arizona itself.  The presence of 400,000 illegal immigrants and a permeable border is bound to have an effect on the local citizens and their specific interests at the state level.  At the same time, the maintenance of an international border and a coherent immigration policy affects the nation's interest as a whole--it is a "great and aggregate interest" with the potential to affect everyone in the U.S.

So, if the federal government drops the ball, should the governor of Arizona be allowed to pick it up and just run with it?  Madison would argue, "No, absolutely not."  This impulse is precisely what the republican democracy of the United States is designed to protect against: the citizens of Arizona constitute a potential faction that cannot objectively consider the interests of the nation at large.  What might seem to be a good or necessary solution to an immediate, local problem may in fact constitute an infringement on the rights of others nationwide.

So this is the lens through which I view this problem: both sides are "right," because both sides represent viable, competing interests which must be addressed and mediated.  The fact that we're witnessing this conflict is not a sign of Armageddon, in my opinion: this comes with the territory of representative democracy.  If we respect the safeguards that Madison describes, we'll weather the storm.  

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."